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"A New Door" by Michael Pollan ’76

An excerpt from the introduction to Michael Pollan's bestselling book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

In the spring of 2010, a front-page story appeared in the New York Times headlined “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.” It reported that researchers had been giving large doses of psilocybin— the active compound in magic mushrooms—to terminal cancer patients as a way to help them deal with their “existential distress” at the approach of death.

These experiments, which were taking place simultaneously at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and New York University, seemed not just improbable but crazy. Faced with a terminal diagnosis, the very last thing I would want to do is take a psychedelic drug—that is, surrender control of my mind and then in that psychologically vulnerable state stare straight into the abyss. But many of the volunteers reported that over the course of a single guided psychedelic “journey” they re-conceived how they viewed their cancer and the prospect of dying. Several of them said they had lost their fear of death completely. The reasons offered for this transformation were intriguing but also somewhat elusive. “Individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states,” one of the researchers was quoted as saying. They “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.”

I filed that story away, until a year or two later, when Judith and I found ourselves at a dinner party at a big house in the Berkeley Hills, seated at a long table with a dozen or so people, when a woman at the far end of the table began talking about her acid trips. She looked to be about my age and, I learned, was a prominent psychologist. I was engrossed in a different conversation at the time, but as soon as the phonemes L-S-D drifted down to my end of the table, I couldn’t help but cup my ear (literally) and try to tune in.

At first, I assumed she was dredging up some well-polished anecdote from her college days. Not the case. It soon became clear that the acid trip in question had taken place only days or weeks before, and in fact was one of her first. The assembled eyebrows rose. She and her husband, a retired software engineer, had found the occasional use of LSD both intellectually stimulating and of value to their work. Specifically, the psychologist felt that LSD gave her insight into how young children perceive the world. Kids’ perceptions are not mediated by expectations and conventions in the been-there, done- that way that adult perception is; as adults, she explained, our minds don’t simply take in the world as it is so much as they make educated guesses about it. Relying on these guesses, which are based on past experience, saves the mind time and energy, as when, say, it’s trying to figure out what that fractal pattern of green dots in its visual field might be. (The leaves on a tree, probably.) LSD appears to disable such conventionalized, shorthand modes of perception and, by doing so, restores a childlike immediacy, and sense of wonder, to our experience of reality, as if we were seeing everything for the first time. (Leaves!)

THE STUDY DEMONSTRATED THAT A HIGH DOSE OF PSILOCYBIN COULD BE USED TO SAFELY AND RELIABLY “OCCASION” A MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE. Michael Pollan '76

I piped up to ask if she had any plans to write about these ideas, which riveted everyone at the table. She laughed and gave me a look that I took to say, How naive can you be? LSD is a schedule 1 substance, meaning the government regards it as a drug of abuse with no accepted medical use. Surely it would be foolhardy for someone in her position to suggest, in print, that psychedelics might have anything to contribute to philosophy or psychology—that they might actually be a valuable tool for exploring the mysteries of human consciousness. Serious research into psychedelics had been more or less purged from the university fifty years ago, soon after Timothy Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project crashed and burned in 1963. Not even Berkeley, it seemed, was ready to go there again, at least not yet.

Third data point: The dinner table conversation jogged a vague memory that a few years before somebody had e-mailed me a scientific paper about psilocybin research. Busy with other things at the time, I hadn’t even opened it, but a quick search of the term “psilocybin” instantly fished the paper out of the virtual pile of discarded e-mail on my computer. The paper had been sent to me by one of its co-authors, a man I didn’t know by the name of Bob Jesse; perhaps he had read something I’d written about psychoactive plants and thought I might be interested. The article, which was written by the same team at Hopkins that was giving psilocybin to cancer patients, had just been published in the journal Psychopharmacology. For a peer-reviewed scientific paper, it had a most unusual title: “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”

Never mind the word “psilocybin”; it was the words “mystical” and “spiritual” and “meaning” that leaped out from the pages of a pharmacology journal. The title hinted at an intriguing frontier of research, one that seemed to straddle two worlds we’ve grown accustomed to think are irreconcilable: science and spirituality. Now I fell on the Hopkins paper, fascinated. Thirty volunteers who had never before used psychedelics had been given a pill containing either a synthetic version of psilocybin or an “active placebo”—methylphenidate, or Ritalin—to fool them into thinking they had received the psychedelic. They then lay down on a couch wearing eyeshades and listening to music through headphones, attended
the whole time by two therapists. (The eyeshades and headphones encourage a more inward-focused journey.) After about thirty minutes, extraordinary things began to happen in the minds of the people who had gotten the psilocybin pill.

SERIOUS RESEARCH INTO PSYCHEDELICS HAD BEEN MORE OR LESS PURGED FROM THE UNIVERSITY FIFTY YEARS AGO. Michael Pollan '76

The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience— typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe. This might not come as news to people who take psychedelic drugs or to the researchers who first studied them back in the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t at all obvious to modern science, or to me, in 2006, when the paper was published.

What was most remarkable about the results reported in the article is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.” Two-thirds of the participants rated the session among the top five “most spiritually significant experiences” of their lives; one-thirdranked it the most significant such experience in their lives. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly. The volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change,” changes that were confirmed by their family members and friends.

Though no one knew it at the time, the renaissance of psychedelic research now under way began in earnest with the publication of that paper. It led directly to a series of trials—at Hopkins and several other universities—using psilocybin to treat a variety of indications, including anxiety and depression in cancer patients, addiction to nicotine and alcohol, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and eating disorders. What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasion—involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego— that may be the key to changing one’s mind.

As someone not at all sure he has ever had a single “spiritually significant” experience, much less enough of them to make a ranking, I found that the 2006 paper piqued my curiosity but also my skepticism. Many of the volunteers described being given access to an alternative reality, a “beyond” where the usual physical laws don’t apply and various manifestations of cosmic consciousness or divinity present themselves as unmistakably real.

All this I found both a little hard to take (couldn’t this be just a drug- induced hallucination?) and yet at the same time intriguing; part of me wanted it to be true, whatever exactly “it” was. This surprised me, because I have never thought of myself as a particularly spiritual, much less mystical, person. This is partly a function of worldview, I suppose, and partly of neglect: I’ve never devoted much time to exploring spiritual paths and did not have a religious upbringing. My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific- materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.

Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience—something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper—could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?

AFTER ABOUT THIRTY MINUTES, EXTRAORDINARY THINGS BEGAN TO HAPPEN

The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room—the room of your own mind—that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking— of being!—lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.

Now, I already knew something about such doors, having written about psychoactive plants earlier in my career. In The Botany of Desire, I explored at some length what I had been surprised to discover is a universal human desire to change consciousness. There is not a culture on earth (well, one) that doesn’t make use of certain plants to change the contents of the mind, whether as a matter of healing, habit, or spiritual practice. That such a curious and seemingly maladaptive desire should exist alongside our desires for nourishment and beauty and sex—all of which make much more obvious evolutionary sense—cried out for an explanation. The simplest was that these substances help relieve pain and boredom. Yet the powerful feelings and elaborate taboos and rituals that surround many of these psychoactive species suggest there must be something more to it.

For our species, I learned, plants and fungi with the power to radically alter consciousness have long and widely been used as tools for healing the mind, for facilitating rites of passage, and for serving as a medium for communicating with supernatural realms, or spirit worlds. These uses were ancient and venerable in a great many cultures, but I ventured one other application: to enrich the collective imagination—the culture—with the novel ideas and visions that a select few people bring back from wherever it is they go.

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Michael Pollan ’76 is the author of seven previous books—Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. He teaches writing at Harvard and at UC Berkeley’s Graduate
School of Journalism. Several of his books have been adapted for television: a Netflix series based on Cooked and both The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food premiered on PBS. In 2010 Time Magazine named Pollan one of the 100 most influential people in the world.